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Remembering Dick Goodwin, Gone Today at 86

One of the last surviving aides of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Dick Goodwin wrote the words and policies that changed America.
Goodwin and I, the last day I saw him.

Goodwin and I, the last day I saw him.

Every 80 years or so, there’s a new generation that defines the best of what America can be. The first came with the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers; the second with the former slaves and anti-slavery activists who fought the Civil War; and the third came with “the greatest generation” who took inspiration from the fight against fascism abroad and dedicated their lives to ending inequality in America. My friend Dick Goodwin, who passed away yesterday at the age of 86, came from that third generation and during his years on the national stage, changed America for the better.

You can’t point to Dick Goodwin and say “He was X” because he was so many different things throughout his lifetime. He was a soldier in the peacekeeping forces in Europe (although he did absolutely no soldiering and used it as an excuse to tour the continent); editor of The Harvard Law Review; a White House aide to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson; a campaign aide; a speechwriter; and a maker and shaper of policy. Not only that, but everybody in that world knew him and sought his advice, right up to the day he died. He consulted Barack Obama on his 2008 campaign and wrote Al Gore’s concession speech after Bush v. Gore ended the 2000 election. He even won the unlikely admiration of Che Guevara, with whom he became close friends.

Dick Goodwin grew up under FDR and was an ardent New Deal liberal but he balanced his belief in bettering economic equality with the understanding that civil equality must come with it. As director of JFK’s Alliance for Progress and later, the International Peace Corps, he inspired generations to see parts of the world they may not have seen if they had the choice and step outside themselves. As a speechwriter for Lyndon B. Johnson, he wrote one of the finest speeches ever given by an American, in which Johnson announced before a joint session of Congress his proposed Voting Rights Act, saying:

“Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over…It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

After leaving the Johnson Administration over his growing antipathy towards the Vietnam War, Goodwin worked as a teacher before joining Bobby Kennedy's 1968 campaign, but following his assassination, Goodwin left politics, spending the rest of his life as a writer and journalist. His 1988 memoir, Remembering America, remains one of the great books written on the social upheaval of the 1960s, and was partially adapted for the 1994 film Quiz Show, in which he’s played by Rob Morrow. In 1975, he married former LBJ aide Doris Kearns, who took his last name and stayed with him for the rest of his life.

I first met Dick and Dory (as she prefers being called) in 2015, when my Mom and I went up to their massive home in Concord, Massachusetts; and again in April 2017, when we spent a few days with them. I have met few people as generous with their intellect as Dick was. He could talk about anything: Newton, Darwin, Galileo (who he wrote a play about), Shakespeare. Despite his faulty memory, he could still recite long poems at the drop of a hat: I watched him recite “Casey at the Bat” one night verbatim. He showed me the letters he’d collected through the years, the drafts of speeches he’d labored over, the books he’d read and read again.

It’s easy to say Dick was forgotten after leaving the national stage, but it just isn't true. Dick Goodwin built a legacy not by force of personality, but by actions. His career didn’t follow a straight line – it zig-zagged all over the place – but all of it was driven by his desire for us to see that the world was bigger than ourselves, and we could make it better. It’s been close to 80 years since his generation changed America, and I’m sorry he won’t be around to see how mine does the same thing. I encourage all of you to research him for yourself and spend time looking over the words you wrote. You will not regret it. 

Thank you, Dick, for everything you did to make this country what it is today, and thank you for inspiring me to do what I do today. You will always be remembered.